The Perils of Public Leadership, and a Call to Sabbatical

stress killsPeople in public leadership positions have a unique set of stresses.

We don’t necessarily need to feel bad for leaders about these stresses. And we don’t need to try and entirely avoid them. In large part, they come with the job. Take any role of public leadership, and you’re automatically assuming some of these stresses.

It would be good, though, for people to be aware of those stresses. People in public leadership roles need to be aware of them. They need to recognize some of what they’re signing up for when they’re signing up for a visible leadership role. They need to be aware of some of the ways they can handle these extra stresses without being over-burdened and burning out.

The rest of us need to be aware of these, too. I think even the most well-intentioned among us don’t realize how much unneeded stress we place on our leaders at times. And we don’t recognize some of the ways we can support them and shield them from hazards to their health and continuing career.


I have a friend named Wayne who is in a high-up position of leadership and management in an engineering group. I would guess he makes important decisions on a regular basis. I would guess that he’s pretty good at his job, given the position his company has trusted him with.

Never once have I critiqued one of Wayne’s decisions at his job. I don’t expect I ever will. He’s an engineer, and I’m not. I didn’t go to school for engineering. I don’t understand how it all works. I lack enough training and understanding to tell you whether Wayne is doing a good job or not. In fact, I would guess that Wayne’s job performance is rarely, if ever, critiqued by anyone outside those who work for his company. The work he does and the decisions he makes just aren’t readily available for critique to the general public.

Compare that to a very different profession. Compare it to a college football coach. Nearly all of us would say that we also lack training in the intricacies of coaching football. If I had been made head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide last year (the national champs, for those unaware), I’m pretty sure they would have gone winless. I watch a lot of football. I love football. But I’m no football coach.

That doesn’t stop me from getting up and screaming (yes, really, it embarrasses my wife and I should stop) when a 3rd down call is a bust. I yell because I can’t believe the coach made the decision he made. I yell because I have this sense that I have a better idea of what should have been done than the coach had. And of course, I have the benefit of yelling after the play is over. The calls to the talk-shows afterward are inevitable. “Why didn’t you _____ instead? What were you thinking?” We’ve developed a phrase for this sort of after-the-fact second guessing: “Monday Morning Quarterbacking.”

Several years ago, I had a pastor friend from Georgia who was going through a crisis. He had come under heavy scrutiny for decisions he made years before (and some decisions that others had made — but as the phrase goes, “the buck stops here”). He couldn’t ever seem to get past that scrutiny. People continued to talk about what he had done, what he should have done, and all the perceived mistakes throughout. And it opened the floodgates for them to evaluate every new thing he did or didn’t do. At one point, he intimated that it had become nothing more than a job for him. He had lost any drive and passion. He had resigned himself to being criticized for whatever he did or didn’t do, and he didn’t have the energy to keep dealing with it. He had started having unusual health problems crop up, too.

I called another friend — a pastor who specializes in counseling — and explained the situation, looking for help.

“When was the last time your friend took a sabbatical?” he asked.

Well, never… He had taken some two-week vacations. Did that count?

“Your friend needs a sabbatical,” he urged. “He’s been doing this for over 20 years with no break. You’ve got to understand — this isn’t like other positions. For over 20 years, he has been in a position that comes with constant scrutiny. He’s had a spotlight on him for most of his adult life, and almost everyone around him thinks they’re qualified to pass judgment on what he’s doing. And a lot of them think they’re justified in passing that judgment. People can go for a long time like that when things are going well, even though it’s still not healthy. But when things go badly, you get this. It’s not natural and it’s not healthy to be under such a spotlight for so long without ever having a break. He needs a break. Soon.”

And to give a little extra emphasis, he added, “If he doesn’t find a way to get a sabbatical or get out entirely, I think he’s in real danger here. As in, he could be dead soon. The body starts to react against this kind of stress. You’re seeing that with the health problems. At best, he’ll be nothing more than dead weight.”


Are you in a public leadership position? Whether it’s coaching or pastoring or just serving as the chairperson of your housing association, I’d imagine you can relate to some of the above. When is the last time you took a break?

What we often see in leaders is that when they don’t get this kind of break, the stresses lead them down a few common paths: depression, sexual infidelity, oversensitivity, marital stress, impulsiveness, constant feelings of inadequacy, grasping for more power and prestige… Any of that sound familiar?

Have you ever noticed how so many coaches walk away from a job (or are fired) and say, “I’m just going to take a little time off…” There’s a sense that they need some time out of that limelight. After that, many of them come back with a renewed energy. But it’s not uncommon to see them take some time off to breathe, to be refreshed.

Is it possible you might consider stepping down from that public leadership position? Perhaps it’s to do something different for a while, with a plan to come back to a similar position later.

Have you considered a sabbatical?

Beginning in July, my family and I are taking a year-long sabbatical. Much of what I’ve said above gives explanation for it. It was time to get away from public leadership and scrutiny for a while. Not because I’ve had it particularly bad, but because I started to see that even in my relatively good experience, I don’t think it’s healthy for me to continue under these stresses without a break. See a bit more about what we’re doing at

Perhaps you can’t take a year-long sabbatical. [Don’t be too quick to say that — consider your options and pray about it; read a bit about our experience on our sabbaticalyear site.] Can you consider a 6- to 8-week sabbatical? I think 6 weeks is bare minimum. Frankly, I’m unconvinced it’s enough. But it’s something. And for that time, no work-related goals. This isn’t an extended planning or research retreat. Your only work-related goal is to be renewed. And your only work-related contact — e-mail, phone, etc. — is… none. Seriously. None. Unless in case of extreme emergency. Perhaps not even then. You need to set up some serious boundaries. And if you’re not capable of doing that (highly likely if you haven’t ever done this before), you need the people around you to set up some boundaries for you.


I hope you’ll be mindful of these stresses. They come with the territory, and I’m not asking you to feel sorry for your pastors. I am asking that you be considerate and proactive, though. Some of the difficulty with public leadership is that everything seems so easy to critique in hindsight and what should have been done so obvious. (Just like that 3rd down call at the football game.) But there’s a lot that goes into all of this that isn’t seen. Many of the decisions aren’t as obvious and straight-forward as we might expect.

I’ve watched pastors take criticism and abuse for months and years after something that didn’t go well. Rarely is it constructive. It’s usually just a re-hashing of criticism that seems like it may never end. And when we see someone bringing those critiques, there’s some terrible part of the human disposition that causes us to pile on, to start adding all of our own critiques and abuse.

Do you see any of this happening where you are? Criticisms that never seem to go away? A sort of piling on where people get together and talk about all of their leader’s faults and mistakes? Maybe you think it’s constructive — helping remind someone of previous mistakes so they don’t make them again. Maybe it’s therapeutic for you to share the personal pain you’ve felt from past decisions and mistakes. But if this is something that keeps being dragged back out, I would venture that it’s not really constructive. Think of a mistake you made a couple years ago. Would it be helpful if different people in different ways continued to bring that old mistake to your attention each week? Not really helpful, is it?

Some churches in my area have become known as pastor-killers. They chew people up and spit them out. If they don’t like something about someone, they pound away until that person can’t take it anymore and leaves. If your goal in criticizing and complaining is to drive someone away… frankly, I wish you’d leave the church. I wish someone would run you out. You’re giving us a bad name, and your behavior has nothing to do with the example of Christ. I’d prefer you stop calling yourself a Christian and associating yourself with the church. There’s just no place for that kind of behavior here. I’d love to see those churches that are known as pastor-killers be shut down. I think we’d be better off trying to start fresh than trying to revive a group that has so hardened its hearts that they have become abusive. Maybe then we can go back after those people as sinners who need to repent and hear the gospel. But let’s drop the charade that considers them upstanding Christian people.

For those of you who really want the best for your pastors, how can you protect them from some of these things? Is there a place for you to make it clear to people that your church community won’t tolerate any abusive criticism? Is there a place for you to provide some space out of the limelight for your pastor? See the above on sabbatical. Could you help make/force that to happen? How can you be aware of the relatively unique stresses that are placed on your pastors, and how can you work to protect their health? If you make their health your goal, I can almost assure you that the health of your own congregation will improve with it.

11 thoughts on “The Perils of Public Leadership, and a Call to Sabbatical

  1. So critical for leaders and followers both to understand. The Lord impressed our pastor a few years ago to take six weeks. It was affirmed by the board and the Lord blessed the whole summer. He was able to come back ready for changes that the Lord was preparing, and the church was ready to move with him. Our District Superintendent encourages pastors to do this but he had never seen it embraced with such corporate enthusiasm.

    The speaker at one of our annual pastors’ retreats was Daniel Spaite, MD. With a father and grandfather as General Superintendents of the Nazarene Church, he was the black sheep of the family and became a doctor, specializing in emergency medicine. He has done significant research in stress biology also. His subject was the Sabbath rest, not given to us by Moses but in the creation. We do not take a sabbatical for vacation, but out of obedience to our Creator. To see a room full of Wesleyan pastors filling in the blanks on their handout notes, I knew he had everybody’s attention, and not just the wives!

    Dr. Spaite has published this teaching as “Time Bomb in the Church” (Beacon Hill Press, 1999). Please pass on this resource!

  2. Argh! My comment got eaten, so I’ll post the truncated version. My earlier comment was much more caustic, so it might be for the best:

    1) I’m not against priests/pastors taking sabbatical, but I think if we make this argument, we should simultaneously encourage, petition, and politically mandate that other corporations/businesses offer this ‘benefit’ to their employees as well.

    2) That being said, without wishing to downplay the stress or perils pastoring (I grew up in a parsonage.), I find there are many other professions with just as much ‘stress’ and ‘peril’, and I’m not just referring to doctors and lawyers. I mean, there’s a reason why there’s a whole segment of vocations we refer to as ‘white (priestly) collar’, right?

    3) I certainly don’t wish to open a can of worms, and I certainly don’t think this applies to you, Teddy, but I find that many/most priests/pastors are incredibly lazy and complain incessantly about being over-worked. Without any real kind of accountability, I find most people tend to exaggerate their work performance and work hours.

  3. Hi Caleb,

    I don’t disagree with any of these points. One thing I want to point out – I’m not claiming that people in public leadership roles have *more* work-related stress than others, but I do believe they have a unique stress due to the amount of public scrutiny they receive.

    My dad is a CPA – one of those white collar jobs you referred to – and I can attest to the stress that he deals with, especially come tax season. The kind of insane hours I hardly see anyone in other vocations keeping. But I can also say that his position isn’t often open to the stress of public scrutiny. That isn’t to downplay it, just to note the uniqueness. He may have clients who think he did a good or poor job, but I don’t know that he ever has masses of people all in conversation with each other, showing up to group meetings, etc., to talk about whether he is doing a good job.

    So to #1) I think following a pattern of life that embraces longer times of rest and sabbatical would generally be a much healthier lifestyle than our current work-as-hard-as-you-can-until-retirement model. As far as politically mandating that corporations offer this benefit… I wouldn’t go that far. Of course, I wasn’t trying to go that far with the church. Just telling people I think they should strongly consider it.

    #2) To reiterate what I said above, I don’t deny the many serious stresses of a number of other jobs. White and blue collar. Many of those stresses probably merit pulling someone away for an extended time. I’m focused here on public leadership positions because I’ve seen and believe it’s terribly unhealthy to spend so much of one’s life under a spotlight without ever getting a break from it.

    #3) I agree that there are plenty of lazy priests/pastors. I’m incredibly frustrated by that. I think there’s a place for asking them to consider a different vocation, as the work of the ministry is far too important for their lazy approach to it. But to be clear, I’m not calling for sabbatical rest because pastors are over-worked. Some are. Some aren’t. I’m calling for it because of the whole spotlight issue. I’d go so far as to say that many of our lazy pastors still face the legitimate stress of being under a bit of a spotlight. They’re not over-worked, but they’re still over-stressed. That doesn’t justify the laziness. But what I’m addressing here isn’t really connected to how hard these people work or how many hours they work.

    And for what it’s worth, I think the stress of public scrutiny can lead to some of that “laziness.” I don’t intend that as an excuse, and I think that’s the exception, not the rule. But I have seen a few otherwise hard-working pastors lose most of their drive after a round of severe public criticism.

    Hope that’s helpful. I agree with most of what you’ve said. It’s just mostly outside the scope of what I was attempting here.

    1. Thanks, Teddy. My comment (reading over it today) sounded much more terse than it was originally intended, and you’re definitely right to point out I moved the conversation in a direction of ‘hours worked’ rather than ‘stress’ which was not the subject matter of the original post. As I mentioned above, I really don’t disagree with your central thrust or even with most of your observations. My main concern is that other vocations often get shuttled to the periphery when these types of conversations take place. Why, after all, should pastor’s receive more vacation/sabbatical time than others? Once again, my temperament isn’t against sabbaticals, merely a wish to broaden their implementation. In any case, within existing structures, it’s hard not to view sabbaticals as a luxury of the wealthy and educated (i.e., those who make money, those who have enough to save, and/or those who are resourceful and can ‘get’ funding for their sabbatical).

      I still might push on the argument that pastoral stress is ‘unique’. I’m just not sure what makes this type of stress qualitatively different than, say, any other type of democratically elected, public leader’s stress. I realize the ‘quality’ of stress can be different with CPAs, factory workers, or even secular leader’s in the private industry (who are not accountability to those under them). I think this is because productivity and success in each instance comes down to the bottom line and is easily quantifiable and measurable. It would seem, however, that there is a great overlap between priests/pastors and secular public officials . . . at least when it comes to the topic of “kinds of stress”.

      This is written from a layperson. The longer I’ve been out of a parsonage (which I’ve lived most of my life in), the more I identify with the congregation. 🙂

      1. Thanks Caleb,

        I wasn’t worried about any terseness in your first comment. I think everything you raised was legitimate. Your last comment is highlighting two things for me:

        1) I didn’t speak clearly enough in my initial post. I wanted to show that people in roles that I would categorize as “public leadership” roles have some unique stresses. That group includes, but isn’t exclusive to, pastors. I would certainly also include elected officials, and probably several others — sports coaches (hence the college football coach example), University presidents, perhaps people in some writing occupations… I jumped specifically to the ministry context because that’s my primary focus, but I think everything I’ve said could/should apply just as much to any other roles that are liable to public scrutiny. That leads to #2…

        2) I focused on the ministry context because it’s the context I’m focused on, but perhaps I need to more intentionally focus on the other areas. Especially since ministry is the one context where there’s even some consideration of sabbatical. I’d love to encourage corporations to consider offering sabbaticals to employees. I actually drafted a proposal for my church (which unfortunately didn’t get much traction) suggeting that we offer paid, 12-week sabbaticals for all full-time employees at the beginning of their seventh year of work. I think this leads to better employee health and retention. It’s something I think could be adopted far beyond the church context. There’s a lot more to it. I might try to write more on it soon — putting it not to churches, but to people in other contexts. Thanks for helping me realize the need to push this harder outside the context.

        In all, I don’t think you’ve said anything in your two comments that I disagree with. My initial purpose was just more limited than all the areas you’re addressing. I think it’s worth expanding to include those.

  4. I have been a minister for over 30 years. I’m not extraordinary or famous but I work long hours and take care of my people. It’s almost a cliche that when pastors go on vacation, they have to wonder if they’ll have a job when they come back. I remember a book by Eugene Peterson (The Message) where he was a strong proponent of taking a sabbatical. He described his own year long sabbatical after working at the same church for many years. I don’t know any details, but I know that by his next book, he was working at a new church.

    In any case, how does a minister afford a long term sabbatical?

    I cannot imagine doing anything else, but I get tired of public scrutiny and having my every move the subject of discussion and evaluation by the community. It doesn’t surprise me that I’ve known many ministers who self destructed by having affairs, creating a scandal, or simply getting sick and dying. It’s a way out.

    What would it be like to feel successful at what one does?

    Finally, as much as I love people, I can count the number of friends I have on one hand, and I don’t get to see most of them enough. But perhaps most people experience this.

    1. I wish Annual Conferences in the UMC would find ways to support this – the Discipline offers sabbatical leave but the only financial support is that the cabinet should try to put the person back at the same level of compensation they were at before the leave, which suggests sabbatical is intended to be between appointments.

      This I think comes back to how we compensate folks – one of the arguments I usually hear for highly compensated clergy is that it’s a stressful job and so we have to pay people well to compensate them for the stress. It’s natural that we take our cues from how American capitalism pays people in stressful occupations since that’s the most prevalent example around us, but what if instead we decided the way to support the stress of the life of a pastor was to provide support for regular sabbaticals and the renewing of his/ her spirit?

      1. Wesley,

        That has been precisely my argument for quite a while now. Why are we investing such effort to increase average compensation packages of $71k (KYUMC average)? Will a higher salary really improve our pastors’ health? Why aren’t we focused on rest and renewal instead of big salaries? I’ll write more soon on it.

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